Word has it that some middle-aged parents are utterly unfazed by the prospect of their children growing up and getting on with their lives. The emptying of the nest is for them an occasion to party, to take up hobbies and go on vacations, to enjoy grownup pursuits and rediscover their marriages. Lucky them. Others of us relate more ruefully to Mel Brooks’s complaint, in his persona as the 2,000-Year-Old-Man: “I have 42,000 children, and not one comes to visit me.”
The loneliness that comes with successfully fledging the last of one’s young is exacerbated for single parents who, having perhaps had to reinvent themselves one time too many already, may not be looking forward to doing so yet again in order to fill the echoing chasm left by some bright young spirit who has flown off into the blue. That’s the challenge faced by the eponymous 60ish heroine of the Chilean film Gloria, directed by Sebastián Lelio and brilliantly embodied by Paulina García, who won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival for the role.
Stuck in a dull office job in Santiago and kept up at night by a mentally unstable, drug-addled upstairs neighbor who stomps about screaming at people who aren’t there, Gloria has been divorced for many years and is trying to find her way to a second life, now that her kids are grown. She tries to maintain the family ties without being too clingy, attending yoga classes taught by her daughter Ana (Fabiola Zamora) and volunteering to babysit for her grandson after her son Pedro’s (Diego Fontecilla) wife leaves him. But the fussy baby won’t stop crying when Gloria holds him, and Ana just wants to dash off right after class with her hunky Swedish mountain-climber boyfriend. So it’s back to her modest middle-class apartment, her evangelizing housekeeper (Luz Jiménez) and her crazed neighbor’s ugly, hairless cat who keeps sneaking in.
Gloria has her down days, but she’s a survivor – a practical woman who refuses to wallow for long. To get out of her rut she seeks out the company of younger, hipper, more artsy or political friends; she sings along at the top of her lungs with every pop hit that comes on the car radio. Most of all she loves to go dancing at discos – sometimes going out with friends, though dancing alone will do. Suffering from glaucoma, she hides her mature beauty behind thick, oversized glasses, but there are still some older men out there who take note of the vibrant thirst for life that Gloria has kept too long at a simmer.
One night at a club she catches the eye of a man named Rodolfo (Sergio Hernández), a retired naval officer who is just beginning to stick a toe in the dating waters after a long-postponed divorce. He’s quickly smitten with Gloria, wooing her with romantic dinners, reading her poetry and introducing her to bungee-jumping and paintball at a play park that he owns. Gloria is a bit more hesitant, wanting to connect but wary after having been married previously to a self-indulgent manchild (Alejandro Goic).
Though their sex life unfolds awkwardly at first, since Rodolfo wears a sort of girdle following lap-band surgery, Gloria throws herself into it with a long-suppressed enthusiasm. Baby-boomer viewers in particular may find the sex scenes rather refreshing in their unflinching portrayal of less-than-perfect older bodies, enmeshed with the same gusto as the young.
But the sheen of a passionate new romance can wear off just as quickly late in life as in the throes of adolescence; though Rodolfo frequently professes his love for Gloria, he can’t stop picking up his cell phone whenever it rings at an inopportune moment. As it becomes ever-clearer that he’s stuck in a co-dependent relationship with his ex-wife and their two grown daughters – all three of whom rely on Rodolfo for financial support – Gloria has to face the question of whether this sort of second-fiddle romance is worth the emotional investment. And that leads into another aspect of this film that sideswipes our expectations of what we’re likely to see onscreen, especially in a story set in a Latin American milieu: In Gloria it’s the men who are the needy, the oversentimental, the weak-willed characters – not the women, and certainly not our plucky, game-but-sensible heroine.
The plot of Gloria is simple, the action minimal, and aside from singing (she knows all the lyrics), the protagonist doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue. It’s a slow build, as we observe her observing, weighing, reacting or concealing her reactions as needed, occasionally experimenting. Ninety percent of the storytelling takes place on García’s face, but we’re never in doubt about what she’s feeling, even if her nearest and dearest often seem oblivious.
It’s an extraordinary, uplifting performance – and when Gloria finally does decide to do something impulsive, we’re putty in her hands. Moving on from the empty nest, it seems, is all about remembering that you can have fun just dancing with yourself.